Is it Common for Doctors to Misdiagnose Child Abuse?

September 24, 2020

A yearlong investigation by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) News and the Houston Chronicle revealed that many physicians have misdiagnosed child abuse and neglect. In 2018, there were 3.5 million reports of suspected child abuse in America, and only 680,000 accounts were verified by authorities.

What is a Child Abuse Pediatrician?

A child abuse physician examines injuries, considers family explanations, and determines if abuse is present. Child-welfare workers and standard pediatricians rely on child abuse pediatricians to identify neglect. One of the main problems is that in many cases, there is no absolute evidence that injuries were purposely inflicted. The NBC and the Houston Chronicle investigation found that the reports and testimonies of these doctors are often accepted and unquestioned by child-welfare authorities, even when their conclusions are unsupported by the opinions of other specialists.

Many child abuse pediatricians have power in deciding the cause of injuries and also testify for prosecutors about their conclusions. They work directly with the state lawyers that remove children from abusive homes. These pediatricians also build arguments against the children’s parents who may not realize the role the pediatrician. In many cases, families unknowingly put trust in child abuse pediatricians, when in fact, these doctors are blaming them for the injuries. Often, child abuse pediatricians are paid by the child-welfare department, which creates conflicts of interest. It also makes it difficult for a child-welfare caseworker to question the doctor’s opinion because they fear retaliation.

What is the Role of the Division of Child Protection and Permanency?

In New Jersey, it is the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP) that is charged with investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect. Allegations can be made by well-intentioned teachers, neighbors, doctors, or police who have obligations to report any suspicions of child abuse. Statistically, cases that are referred by medical professionals to child-welfare agencies are much more likely to be substantiated, but medical professionals routinely misdiagnose abuse. Oftentimes, misdiagnosis is seen when lower-income families are involved.

Once an allegation of abuse is substantiated, the state is obligated to protect the child by removing them from the source of abuse. Prosecutors can file in family court to have parents separated from their children temporarily or permanently. Unlike criminal cases that involve civil courts, family courts provide little protection to defendants, and the burden of proof for the state is low. Many families cannot afford experienced legal representation to fight the charges. Even families who can fight against allegations may be afraid to pursue defenses because they fear they will antagonize child-welfare workers.

What Can Cause a Misdiagnosis of Abuse?

In many cases, children typically have pre-existing ailments. For example, one family took their baby to the hospital because of broken bones. The baby’s bones were prone to breaking because of thinning bones. A specialist voiced their opinion to the child abuse pediatrician, and the doctor disregarded it completely. The pediatrician diagnosed it as child abuse.

In another instance, a child abuse pediatrician reported that head trauma and violent shaking led to the death of a baby. The baby’s father was put in jail until it was determined much later that the baby had inherited a blood condition that caused excessive bleeding and strokes. The father suspected that the condition existed in his family, but his comments were not taken seriously by the people investigating the case.

How Can Misdiagnoses of Child Abuse be Prevented?

Experts in the field say that a collaboration of specialists could be the key to reducing misdiagnoses. Ideally, the team would include pediatric subspecialists and pathologists who have experience diagnosing conditions that mimic abuse-related injuries. This way, second opinions are obtained at the start of a case, not after an abuse diagnosis is already made. Working in a group also reduces biases against a family.

Another important way to reduce cases of misdiagnosis is to gather and share data, something that is currently not done. Many doctors do not know the long-term outcomes of the cases they decide on; therefore, doctors do not even realize if mistakes were made.

What are My Rights as a Parent?

Parents have the right to defend themselves, and they are not legally obligated to cooperate with the DCPP unless an order from the court is obtained. Unless there is a court order, parents do not have to allow the DCPP investigators into their home and do not have to sign safety protection plans.

However, once the DCPP has started an investigation, they will move quickly to determine if child abuse or neglect is present. If they feel a child is in danger, they have the authority to remove the child from the family home. The DCPP investigators can even try to terminate parental rights if it is necessary. Once this process has begun, parents face a long path of court hearings and appeals to halt and reverse it.

For this reason, it is crucial that a family hires a lawyer that will defend them. Child abuse allegations are serious, and a lawyer will build a strong case if misdiagnosis has caused a child to be removed from the home.

South Jersey DCPP Lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker Advocate for Parents Facing Allegations of Child Abuse and Neglect

Many families have lost their children because of physicians misdiagnosing child abuse. If you are being accused of child abuse after a misdiagnosis, contact one of our South Jersey DCPP lawyers at the Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker. Our lawyers fight tirelessly to defend and protect families. Complete our online form or call us at 856-795-9400 for an initial consultation. Located in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Haddonfield, Marlton, Medford, Moorestown, Mount Laurel, and Voorhees.

Ted Baker Map